Thursday, April 12, 2007

Churchill and the Duke Innocent

Readers Note:

The post which follows recounts a series of remarkable events which occurred in England during the spring and summer of 1902.

You’ll quickly see some close similarities between those events and much of what’s occurred during the Duke Hoax.

Parts of this post appeared in a previous Churchill Series post.

This post is meant as a tribute to all of you who worked in various ways with whatever time and resources you had to help David Evans, Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and their families get to yesterday and NC Attorney General Roy Cooper’s statement: “Innocent.”


In May 1902, the first of a series of arson fires broke out at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

After the fifth fire, the Commandant issued an order: If the guilty were not identified within forty-eight hours, every cadet housed in barrack “C,” where the fires had occurred, would be dismissed for a term unless he could prove he wasn’t in the barrack “C” area at the time of the fire.

The cadets, twenty-nine in all, included three who had already been investigated in connection with previous fires and cleared of any involvement.

Now they and their fellow cadets would all be sent down for a term, something that would forever stain their military records and reputations.

The order also said that if the arsonist was not identified, three aged servants in “C” barrack, all former career soldiers, would be summarily sacked.

The hours passed; no one came forward. After endorsements by the Army Commander-in-Chief, Lord Frederick Roberts, and the Secretary of State for War, the order took effect: The cadets were sent down; the servants dismissed.

The order’s injustices might have gone uncorrected but for the actions of a handful of members of the House of Commons, and later, a few members of the House of Lords, including, as it turned out, Lord Roberts himself.

Winston Churchill, then twenty-seven and sitting in his first Parliament, was one of those few who took up the cadets’ cause. He interviewed them, documented the circumstances of the fires and demanded to know why the cadets were being punished for not identifying the arsonist when nobody had proved any of the cadets knew who the arsonist was.

In a letter to The Times of London, Churchill reported: “All the cadets I have seen strenuously deny any complicity with the offences.” He then said the cadets' and servants’ treatment was a travesty which violated “three cardinal principles of equity:”

“that suspicion in not evidence; that accused should be heard in their own defense; and that it is for the accuser to prove his charge, not for the defendant to prove his innocence.”
Churchill’s letter drew a quick, sharp rebuke from the Reverend Frederick Westcott, headmaster of one of England’s leading public schools, who said soldiers had to learn the lessons of group punishment:
“The innocent, doubtless, suffer with the guilty; but then they always do. The world has been so arranged.”
Well, you’re thinking what Westcott must have gotten a roaring reply from Churchill, and you’re right.

Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert, tell us about the reply and what followed :
“Has it indeed?” Churchill asked in his reply [published in The Times] on July 8.

No doubt Westcott had taken care “that the little world over which he presides is arranged on that admirable plan, but it is necessary to tell him that elsewhere the punishment of innocent people is regarded as a crime, or as a calamity to be prevented by unstinting exertion.”

So long as the “delinquencies of a schoolmaster” were within the law, Churchill added, “the House of Commons has no right to intervene, but when a Commander-in-Chief and a Secretary of State are encouraged to imitate him, it is time to take notice.”

Churchill wanted to discuss the Sandhurst punishments in the Commons. But [Prime Minister] Balfour…refused to allow time for any such debate [so] Churchill [arranged to have the matter] raised in the Lords.

During the debate there, the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, agreed that each individual case would be investigated and that no innocent cadet would lose a term of study.
Lord Roberts did review each cadet and servant's case individually. Twenty-seven of the twenty-nine cadets elected to return to Sandhurst. The three servants were reinstated. The Commandant was dismissed because of "the general disorderliness" at Sandhurst. No arsonist was ever identified.

Just why Lord Roberts took the extraordinary step of, in effect, overruling himself and the Government has never been entirely clear. I discuss the question in a post, “Roberts and Churchill.”

There are many reasons why the Duke Hoax witch hunt and frame-up got as far as they did. One has to do with the willingness of so many nowadays to let their sexual, racial and gender biases govern their actions when they should be guided by the principles and rights that come to us from the English common law.

I’ll end this post with Churchill’s words, a reminder of precious rights that guided so many of you this past year as you worked towards yesterday’s “Innocent:”
“that suspicion in not evidence; that accused should be heard in their own defense; and that it is for the accuser to prove his charge, not for the defendant to prove his innocence.”
Accounts of the Sandhurst events can be found in many, but not all, Churchill biographies. For this post, in addition to Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life, I relied on Randolph S. Churchill’s Winston S. Churchill, Young Statesman:1901-1914, and Ted Morgan’s, Churchill, Young Man in a Hurry: 1874-1915


Anonymous said...

These days, as the players pointed out, you'd better have a pot of money on your side to get those three conditions....